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  • So What's Your Book About: Learning To Talk About My Own Work
This blog was featured on 07/18/2016
So What's Your Book About: Learning To Talk About My Own Work
Written by
Tayari Jones
May 2011
Written by
Tayari Jones
May 2011

It has occurred to me, SheWriters, that I haven’t even told you anything about my new novel, SILVER SPARROW.  And this dovetails perfectly into my challenge for this week—How to talk about my book.  It’s a tricky proposition.  I want something punchy that people can remember, but I also want to do justice to my project.  When someone asks me "What's Your Book About?" I could answer that a thousand different ways.  It's almost as bad as "Tell me about yourself."  I have no idea where to start.

Here’s what my publisher has written on the dust jacket:

With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and two teenage girls caught in the middle.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters—the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle—she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives.

At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and like the best writers—think Toni Morrison with The Bluest Eye—Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.

As you can imagine, I cannot go around speaking about myself in these terms. (I can just see myself saying “Think Toni Morrison…”) But exactly how does a person talk about her book? There's no avoiding it.  It has to be done.

There was a time when I would say, “Silver Sparrow is about bigamy.”  Then people would say, “Like Big Love?”  So then I started saying, “It’s about bigamy, the lying, cheating kind, not the religious kind.”  This gets more to the heart of the novel, but the tone is off. It wasn’t a description, it was a pitch.  And while it’s an accurate characterization of the subject matter, it wasn’t a true portrayal.

What I have settled on is not a one-sentence summary.  I worked five years on the novel and I feel that I owe it more than a five-second run-down.  I have been told a million times that you have to be able to talk about your book in ten words or less.  I think that so many guides to marketing forget the fact that these books are our babies in so many ways.  A novel is not just an object to sell.  I would even argue that when we start to talk about it as an object, people think of it as an object.  But when we slow down and speak of it as a lovingly crafted work of art, others will treat it the same way.

I believe the best marketing tool is your own sincerity.  We do interviews, tours, book club meetings, et cetera because we want to connect with readers.  If we’re speaking in sound bytes and jingles we are not respecting ourselves, our work or our readers.  And without respect, there is no connection.

Now, when someone asks me about my book, I say this—

Silver Sparrow is about two girls that have the same father.  One knows, but the other lives in the shadows. It’s also about the wives, the acknowledged one, and the secret one.  I wrote it because there are many people who live this way, and I really wanted to try and figure out how people can connect with each other and overcome the shame, anger and hurt in order to take responsibility for their own lives.

Just now, I timed myself saying that and it took twenty-one seconds.  My book deserves at least that much.


Now, over to you, SheWriters-- are you comfortable talking about your own work? How do you describe your project?

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  • And Silver Sparrow is also noted in Vogue magazine! Okay, I'm now officially jealous, Tayari.

  • Lovenia Leapart

    Awesome post. Thank you!  I have struggled with this very same issue as well and I agree wholeheartedly with the points you make in this post.

  • I just settled in with my new O Magazine and YOUR BOOK IS FEATURED IN IT!!! Tayari, you are way too humble so obviously I am going to have to do it for you (and congrats!)

    HEY EVERYBODY, CLICK HERE!!! http://www.oprah.com/book/Silver-Sparrow-by-Tayari-Jones

  • Connie Rausch

    I find it difficult to start talking about my book as well.  My book is very personal and very tragic.  Some people have said they found it difficult to read because it was so emotional.  Others loved it and wanted to read more. 


    My book starts with my husband in the hospital while fighting for cancer and then I start talking about my life before we met.  The last part of the book is about the grieving process and my recovery.

  • I wrote screenplays before I finished my first novel. So, I know how difficult the logline or elevator pitch can be. I still haven't mastered it. When the story's stripped down too much, I feel it loses what makes it unique. It can seem like describing a beautiful painting by telling the buyer what type of frame it could fit into.

    As for my book, here's one of my pitches--

    Depth of Focus is about an aspiring photographer who fears following in her parents' footsteps. If she can't find a way to balance a meddling roommate, nosy neighbor, former lover, current lover, mostly-absent father, jealous sibling, insecure best friend and suicidal mother with the demands of her lousy job, approaching birthday party and shrinking college fund, she won't be going to school. And chances are, she'll lose a lot more than her career.

    It's an adaptation of my first script, inspired by moving 3,000 miles from everything and everyone I knew. Although it’s written purely in prose, the entire manuscript –- in my head -– is constructed of poetry without the stanzas.

  • Thank you so much for this post, Tayari. I have run into EXACTLY the same conundrum: how to answer the question quickly but still do it justice? I have found that when I relax and talk about the book, with all the affection and sincerity I feel for it, people really respond. And when I try to stuff that little speech into an "elevator pitch", it sounds like crap. So you have validated my feelings and I thank you. Best wishes with what sounds like a lovely story.

  • I used to think that writing was 'my thing.' When someone would ask me what I'm passionate about, I would say "writing," without hesitation. However, I've recently discovered that writing is not my passion at all. It's merely my vehicle. My passion is helping others realize their significance, and through my words, I hope to encourage them to overcome their past, their current obstacles, and any future preconceived notions they have that are holding them back. When I thought writing was my passion, it was very hard for me to describe my writing projects succinctly. I was too afraid I just wouldn't do it justice - it was my passion after all, and people might not understand. But once I was able to separate my true passion from my vehicle in which my passion travels, it became much easier to lay out the words needed to describe any project at hand.

    I currently have 5 eBooks that I’m working on, all of which are briefly described in my profile. I’m new to SheWrites, and am so thankful to have found a site with so many like-minded women who have their minds set on success, sharing that success, and even sharing the times when things aren’t so ‘successful.’

  • Sandi R. Sams

    I am not comfortable talking about my work. My WIP has been so sporadic over such a long time... turmoil and life interfere... though I lay it down it refuses to stay lie there.  Willa insists upon her voice being heard. 

    I know I could never ever adequately describe her in 10 words or even 100...  but here goes...

     Willa (working title) is about...... 

    Ok, maybe not.

    I have discribed her as "a young artist trying to escape an abusive relationship"... but she is much more than that. Her life was a rocky road right from the beginning. Her mother abandoned her and her adoptive parents were killed when she was still very young.... Ok... each time I try... I seem to be 'telling' the story.  

  • MiMi Atkins

    I describe my project as a work in progress and there's no need to shy away from your work. A writer should not feel as if she/he is boasting. Confidence is key in everything. If you can't talk about your book when asked then who will pay homage?!?

  • Kimberly Wesley

    I struggle with this a bit and have yet to have anything published. But when they ask, what are your working on, I'm all "It's like..." and name another novel mine is similar too, instead of just saying what mine is about.

  • Katrina Spencer

    For some reason, when I was a hairstylist I would go up to a complete stranger, remark on their split ends and hand them a business card. Now, when someone asks me what I do, I find it hard to say, "author", and instead spill out, "stay-at-home mom". So, don't get me started on talking about my books, I feel like I'm bragging and just can't get the words out. But the more I start comparing to hair, it really is the same. The constant hustle to get new clients can be likened to the constant hustle to get more readers. So I'm doing better at it.

  • Karen Sosnoski

    I enjoyed this post both as a writer and as a reader. I think you're right--when I've tried *too* hard to rush through my blurb about my novel, people I'm talking to seem to think I'm impatient and disinterested in talking to them and the conversation ends. Of course we can't go on and on (even when talking about real babies) but sharing some enthusiasm and personal stake is important as you say--gives the opportunity for the listener to hopefully connect.

  • Angela Tung

    your post was really helpful, especially this: "I believe the best marketing tool is your own sincerity." i'm trying to market my memoir now, and am having trouble striking a balance between being aggressive enough and not coming off like a jerk. i have to remember i've been most successful at marketing - whether it's other writings or myself on a dating site (haha) - when i've been sincere with a sense of humor. thank you for that reminder.

  • Lita Hooper

    It's tough for me to talk about my YA book since I'm trying to find a publisher and agent and I'm not sure if I'm saying the wrong thing. I know what it's about and I certainly know why I wrote it. But I'm very concerned that I will not articulate this in a way that will make the book interesting to others.

  • Judith van Praag

    Tayari, Brava! on distilling the essence of your novel in such a clear cut manner. My main struggle over the years has been to decide whose story I'm telling. I've shifted the protagonist role around between three possible stars, the leading man, the leading woman, the leading child. Was that true for you as well?

    Or did you wind up using all of those points of view? And if so, did that in the end help you phrase the description?

  • This is very hard for me. I am concerned about "scripting a response" and then I'm concerned about not scripting one. And I'm also never sure how in depth someone wants me to go. As you can tell...it's fraught. I wish I could find someone who could do it for me.

  • K.C. Blake

    No, I'm not comfortable talking about my books.  It makes me feel like a door to door salesman and just about as welcomed.  It's hard, but I'm trying to get over it.  One thing I hate is that every time I tell someone the title, they think it is a Twilight rip-off.  My book is nothing like Twilight.  Besides that, I wrote mine first.  Unfortunately, I didn't publish it until recently.

    Vampires Rule has a different twist to the old vampire thing.  You see, Jack starts off as a vampire but quickly turns mortal again.  Then he has to face his most powerful enemy at a time when he can easily die. Mostly though the book is about him trying to retun to his family and his old life.

  • Ivana Milakovic

    I speak of my book as of a collection of 25 short stories, fantasy, horror, and fairy tales retold. And while it usually works, I am aware that in 25 different stories there's much more -  brother-sister relationships, dreams, longings, children not fitting into the world they live in and seeking escape in the fantastique, superstitions destroying lives... And much more.


    So I stick to the 25 short stories, fantasy, horror and fairy tales retold.

  • Colleen Green

    This is definitely something for me to think about. It seems like there is a lot of work to do before you release your book or "labor of love" into the world. Right now I am trying to find a way to connect with the future audience of my novel. Any advice on this subject matter is greatly appreciated.

  • Tayari Jones

    My belief is that you can take your time as use as many words as you need.  Have you noticed that we always talk other people with short attention spans.  Other people that can't digest nuance.  My guess is that there are more people than we think who are capable of listening to, and digesting several sentences at once and these are the people who will enjoy our work.

  • I actually took a workshop on how to create a pitch.  The goal was to distill it into one sentence. I can't tell you how hard this was; almost harder than writing the book.  But I finally came up with this --  My novel, Staying Afloat, is about a devoted stay-at-home wife and mother who morphs into a sex-starved adulteress."  This pitch gets lots of interest!

    Judith Marshall 

    Author of "Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever," recently optioned for the big screen.

  • Kelly Simmons

    This is so hard for so many writers!  I always tell people to get their description down to three paragraphs, then one paragraph, then a sentence or two. 


    Yours is excellent!!


  • Frieda Gates

    My novel, SAWNEY BEANE, is about incest and cannibalism.  This remark always seems to be a grabber.  When I further explain that the plot is based on a 400 year old Scottish legend, recorded by Daniel Defoe, it is sort of saying that the story is true.  Yet we all know that although "legends" may be based on fact - the very term indicates that it is probably exaggerated in some way.  When I was in Scotland however, doing research, it seemed like everyone I spoke to - knew about Sawney Beane.  And after publication, I received a letter from a man who believes he is a descendant - and informed me about a follow-up legend.  This follow-up is the basis for my sequel THE HAIRY TREE, due out the end of this year.

  • I think this is partly difficult because it can be hard to judge the intent of the question "what's your book about?" Is it being asked politely? With genuine interest? Because it has to be asked? By someone who might read it? Someone who is just interested in the idea that you wrote a book? Someone whom you look up to as a mentor? A student of yours? I sometimes feel I have to calibrate the answer, and that makes it harder! I need to practice this some more, so thanks for your post, and for everyone's responses. And congrats on the P&W profile!

  • Breena Clarke

    Yes, yes, the above description is good. I know the feeling you're talking about. We feel the pressure to be able to describe a novel succinctly -- hard to do when you've been thinking of it in very complex ways. I agree that a good script must be written so that you can say the "best" things about your work. I'm currently at an earlier stage -- just put my pen down/keys quiet. I'm still sad about being at the end. But now that I'm at a stage of completion I can begin to construct the narrative of what the novel is about. In fact, I begin by listening to myself when I answer certain peoples' questions -- my reader(s), my agent, my editor. They will ask good questions and I will scrutinize my own answers. This will tell my what the novel's about. Maybe it's not entirely what I thought. Also -- hee, hee -- I think I can hold anyone on any topic for longer than ten minutes. I could be wrong about this, too.